With attention diverted from their on-court performances to David Lee’s omission from the All Star Game, the Knicks slowly slipped further away from play-off contention with a pair of crushing losses. With Chicago and Charlotte enjoying strong winning runs in recent times, this week’s unnecessary defeats to Toronto and Washington could not have come at a worse time.
The week began in somber fashion with the Knicks reflecting on their now-infamous 50-point shellacking at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks. Their chance to atone for that brutal loss came 48 hours later when the struggling Minnesota Timberwolves came to the Garden. Coming so quickly after the Dallas debacle, the game provided a true test of character for the Knicks, one they passed with flying colours.
Showing no scars from their Sunday matinee beatdown, the Knicks poured in 40 points in the first quarter against Minnesota to set up a comprehensive 132-105 thrashing. David Lee lead the way with a dominant 28-point, 10-rebound performance. He was ably assisted by 26 bench points from Al Harrington and another 13 (including a ridiculous looped circus shot that earned an And 1 from Nate Robinson.
As one-time Knick target Ramon Sessions acknowledged after the game, the passionate and committed start the Wolves expected from their hosts ultimately lasted the whole game. If was the perfect response to a heavy defeat and in many ways Minnesota were the perfect opponents, surrendering 21 turnovers and allowing the Knicks to blow them out of the building.
Next up for the Knicks was another home match-up, this time against divisional rivals Toronto, an ideal opportunity to make up ground in the Eastern Conference play-off race. The build-up to the game was overshadowed by the early announcement of the All Star reserves and the omission of David Lee from the East’s bench.
Let’s be clear, Lee’s effort, numbers and overall improvement this year make him more than deserving of an All Star spot. But deserving players from teams with losing records are overlooked every year. So while it’s nice for Kobe, Shaq and whoever else to go on the record and state Lee should have gone to Dallas, his omission isn’t shocking. Antawn Jamison and Brook Lopez can consider themselves similarly unfortunate, but ultimately not surprised, to miss out.
One of the reasons the Knicks remain a struggling team with a losing record was on full display against the Raptors as they gave away a game should have won not once, but twice, at home, to a team playing the second of back-to-back games.
If Lee was irked by his All Star omission, he responded in the right way, taking out his frustration on the court as he scored 18 points and tore down 10 boards in the first half alone. Early on in the second, the Knicks lead was 16 but stagnant offence and a long-distance brick-fest allowed the Raptors back into the game.
In the third quarter, the Raptors deployed a two point guard offence in an attempt to negate Nate the Great and break the Knicks’ momentum. The energy provided by guard Sonny Weems created turnovers and, with Chris Bosh free to score after Jared Jeffries left the court through injury, the Raptors took control. Jeffries may have also helped stop Hedo Turkoglu who repeatedly attacked the rim and got to the line. His 26 points return was his best as a Raptor.
Staring at another home defeat, the Knicks battled back down the stretch. Boosted by the three point shooting of Harrington and Danilo Gallinari, they caught the Raptors and built up a 102-97 lead with two minutes left. But again they let the game slip away. Harrington is famous for hurting a team as much as he helps it and when he fouled Turkoglu beyond the arc for three made free throws, the momentum shifted back in Toronto’s favour.
The Raptors went on a 9-2 run to seal the win. Between them, Lee, Harrington and Robinson missed four lay-ups in the final two minutes and, when Jarrett Jack missed a free throw to give the Knicks one last chance to force overtime, the Knicks failed to execute an in-bounds play that ended with a lumbering Harrington stomping through treacle towards the hoop before inevitably giving up an offensive foul. The Knicks fell 106-104, wasting a 29-point, 18-rebound all star effort from Lee and letting a game they should have won slip through their fingers.
Things took another turn for the worst two nights later in Washington where Antawn Jamison and Mike Miller torched the Knicks 106-96 in yet another missed opportunity for Mike D’Antoni’s struggling team. Al Harrington missed the game with a bone bruise while Jared Jeffries, afflicted with a similar injury, took a cortisone shot, played all 48 minutes and gave the team a season-high 17 points. David Lee and fellow All Star absentee Antawn Jamison both scored over 20 points but Jamison got the better of his rival on the boards, ripping down 23 rebounds to Lee’s nine.
But the true difference maker in this game was Mike Miller. After sleepwalking through the first quarter, the Knicks had fought back from a 17-point deficit by using a zone to curtail the Wizards’ momentum and draw level at 52-52. Then Miller took over. Clipping his trademark long hair clearly hasn’t sapped Miller of his strength or skill as he drained five three pointers in the third quarter on his way to a match-winning 25 points.
The only pity for Miller was that his performance came in front of an arena that looked about two-thirds empty. Heavy snow in Washington left the inside of the Verizon Center look as sparsely populated as an average Philadelphia 76ers home game.
The defeat in Washington was the Knicks eighth in their last 11 games. This was supposedly the softest part of their schedule. The importance of these losses has been compunded by playoff contenders Chicago and Charlotte winning eight and seven of their last 10 games respectively. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Knicks were half a game away from the eighth seed. Recent results have seen them slip 5.5 games behind the Bulls. With the all star break looming and the promise of harder games in March and April, the Knicks playoff hopes are dangerously close to being extinguished.